The New York Red Bulls should have lost this game 3-0 by half-time. But they didn't, and despite clear and obvious flaws in both the planning and execution for this match, the Red Bulls stuck around long enough at their task to grab two late goals and become the first team to beat Atlanta United in MLS.
The 2-1 win for RBNY was Atlanta's first-ever league match, and first-ever league loss. The MLS newcomers will play worse than that did against the Red Bulls and win - no great harm done by this result beyond the temporary sting of a defeat where victory had appeared certain.
As for the Red Bulls: they were due a little luck, perhaps. And they made that luck for themselves by not shying away from the task of winning the game, even when it was obvious they were out of sorts and second-best.
Player Ratings for the Red Bulls' MLS 2017 season-opening win over Atlanta United:
New York Red Bulls (@NewYorkRedBulls) March 5, 2017
Luis Robles - 9
The game would have been over long before RBNY got its act together, if not for Robles' valiant efforts. He was only credited with three saves by the box score, but this one should have counted double - because it prevented Atlanta taking a two-goal lead and the match into half-time.
This one was useful too.
Kemar Lawrence - 7
Was he guilty of leaving a lot of space behind him for the Atlanta counter-attack? He was, but that is how Jesse Marsch wants his full backs to play. And it was Lawrence's ability to get forward and help the attack that meant he was in position to receive Mike Grella's pass and to deliver the perfect cross to a stumbling mass of BWP and Anton Walkes. It went in off Walkes, the stats-keepers decided - but it was going in off someone because Lawrence hit the cross so well.
And that was the winner.
Damien Perrinelle - 6
Stood up well in his first appearance for RBNY in 2017, but seemed vulnerable to Atlanta's pace and therefore perhaps not ideally-suited to the task of being the back line's first challenger. His positioning and reading of the game gets him and the team out of a lot of trouble, but Perrinelle relied maybe more than he wanted to on the younger legs alongside him in the midde of defense.
Aaron Long - 8
Still prone to questionable decisions (he's good for one unnecessary clearance a game at the moment) and still looks like he's playing a safety-first game that racks up some impressive statistics (his passing percentages have been praised recently) but don't really add much. But he earned his keep at the back not just by tidying up loose and second balls, but with four blocks and two interceptions to keep Atlanta at bay in key moments.
Sal Zizzo - 7
Like his partner on the left hand side of the defense, right back Zizzo gets a lot of criticism for simply following orders: he's supposed to be insanely high up the field. Unlike Kemar Lawrence, he lacks the speed to get back in all but the rarest circumstances. For much of the first half in particular, he was RBNY's best ball-handler and also its most glaring weakness, as Atlanta punted balls to the space he was supposed to be in - and eventually scored off one such chance.
Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) March 6, 2017
But Zizzo is following orders and he did add something in attack when RBNY was at its lowest ebb in the game. The defensive shortcomings in the game were largely a failure of tactics, not individuals.
Felipe - 6
Looking for someone to blame for RBNY's struggles? This observer blames in part the midfield engine room, which was too often guilty of being in the wrong place at the right time for Atlanta. But Felipe redeemed himself in the build-up to the opening goal: his shot from distance surprised 'keeper Alec Kann, who bobbled the save and almost gave Daniel Royer a tap-in. And the ensuing corner was the one from which Royer scored.
The downside of Felipe is a certain unpredictability in a system that relies on relatively precise positioning. The upside of Felipe is also a certain unpredictability. He can be infuriating, he can be effective - often, like in this game, he is both.
Sean Davis - 5
Davis was praised for his stand-in work for Dax McCarty last season. Now he's getting just a little flak for not being Dax McCarty. He seems to be some distance from really asserting himself at his position, maybe trying too hard to be McCarty, maybe trying too hard to compensate for Felipe's occasional flights of fancy, maybe just trying too hard altogether. Whatever the reason, he has a more complete game than he showed against Atlanta, and when he does find a way to express that game - he will be a considerable help to the current goal-shy attack.
Daniel Royer - 9
He blew a little hot and cold during the match, but the important thing is he never stopped. The shot from Felipe that created the corner from which the first goal was scored - it was Royer's follow-up that forced ball out of play for a corner. And it was Royer's header that delivered the equalizer. (He was RBNY's most active shooter on the night, landing all three of his shots on target.)
And though the highlights record Grella's sublime invention and Lawrence's precise crossing as the keys to the second goal, it was Royer who cut in from the right with the ball and pushed the back line into retreat, then laid off a pass to Grella in space - and Grella in space has enough time to go looking for trouble, which is what Grella did.
Sacha Kljestan - 5
He got an assist for taking the corner that Royer headed in for the equalizer, but RBNY has several players who send a corner to the back post. Kljestan was largely disappointing, crowded out or off the ball too easily, mistiming passes and runs with frustrating frequency. He played better when dropping to a deeper role later on in the game, but his ineffectiveness further up the field was part of the reason he was better off playing deep in the first place.
Alex Muyl - 5
He wasn't terrible, by any means. But Muyl's game in the 4-2-3-1 (which RBNY was playing for most of the time he was on the field) is a conservative one, and it did little to stop the flow of passes and chances down his flank. When an attacking spark was needed, he was an obvious first choice to be substituted.
Bradley Wright-Phillips - 6
He did his job: take the one chance that comes. BWP wasn't credited with scoring the game-winning goal, but it's not in the net if his run isn't the right one at the right time, checking his momentum just enough to keep a man on his back and the offside flag down.
But he's not at his most effective in the role he was mostly asked to play in Atlanta. It's not his fault he is playing increasingly with his back to goal, hoping for flick-ons or tasked with holding up the ball for other runners. It's not his fault the few passes he did get to chase behind the back line ran wide and forced him into a supporting role. But that is what happened, and there are better players for that role in MLS - which is shame, because there are no better goal-scorers than BWP in the league, when he's allowed to make that his primary focus.
Mike Grella - 8
He did what he was supposed to do: supplied a moment of invention that turned the game. Doesn't matter really what else he did, Mike Grella had one job when he was subbed in, and he did it.
Derrick Etienne - 6
Brought on to play the second-striker role as RBNY pushed forward with a more recognizable 4-2-2-2 than it had been playing for much of the game. His understanding of the position was important to the second goal, where his run kept the defense from collapsing on Kemar Lawrence just long enough for the cross to be made. And in general, he brought a game-changing dynamic to RBNY's set-up, simply by knowing how to do the job he was supposed to do.
Coach: Jesse Marsch - 7
Marsch gets a lot of criticism from...well, from Once A Metro, mostly it seems. And that criticism is often for predictable tactics, failure to make obvious changes, and a lack of influence on the game from the bench.
We kick him when he's down, we must praise him when he's up. This was not a great game for RBNY, but it was a glimpse of where Marsch wants the the team to be. His team tried a little bit of everything, flowing from the 4-2-3-1 to 4-2-2-2, with a little help from some timely substitutions.
His stubborn refusal to adjust the back line for the duration of the first half should have cost him the game, he was outcoached for the first 45 minutes and seemed powerless to stop it. But he did finally adjust, and adjusted again midway through the second half to introduce the changes of personnel and tactics that won the game.